Christopher Hitchens, the Washington, D.C.-based author and noted secular polemicist, died Thursday night from complications of esophageal cancer. He was 62.
Hitchens appeared on On Point in 2007, talking about atheism and the failings of organized religion, the subject of his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
“I think any even small dose of the sleep of reason, even when reason nods off for a second, unreason and barbarism are waiting to rush in,” Hitchens said. “It’s a full time job just keeping the mind alive in the face of these challenges from superstition and irrationality.”
In August, Hitchens gave an interview to the Atlantic magazine, talking at length about his battle with cancer. A devout atheist, an “antitheist” he frequently called himself, Hitchens said that he would never become religious, despite a terminal prognosis.
If any such quote was attributed to him, he said, it would be solely the result of his disease. “The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain,” he told the Atlantic. “I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark.”
In 2010, Hitchens defended atheism in a debate with David Wolpe last year moderated by Tom Ashbrook. You can find the video here.
Here’s a brief portion of the 2007 appearance on On Point.
HITCHENS: Well there are two problems, the first is the belief itself, if you like. That the universe, and we, are created with a purpose in mind. Apparently we’re to assume a benign one. Religion comes from the terrified infancy of our species, when, since we still had to search for explanations—we have no, our brains have no choice but to do that, we are so made—we had to search for explanations in the absence of knowledge. We didn’t know that the sun went round the earth. We weren’t going to find that out, as far as the Church was concerned either. We didn’t know that there was a germ theory of disease to explain plagues and maladies. We had no concept at all of the cosmos. Well, it shows, the shortcomings of religion that evolved in those circumstances. So the first thing is that it’s not true. And it’s not even wrong, actually, it has no relationship to any of the inquiries and investigations we need to make in order to know something about our origins and our place in the cosmos. The second thing is that those who believe this, or believe the supernatural explanation of it, further believe they know the mind of God. They are in private communication—they know for example, some of them claim to know, that he doesn’t like ham. They know him that well.
ASHBROOK: Don’t eat pork.
HITCHENS: They know him well enough to be able to issue commandments in his name, saying that one may not, for example, masturbate. Or, go to bed with a person of the same sex. Or of the opposite sex unless under very strictly regulated conditions. How they know this, I don’t know. They’ve never been able to furnish the relevant information, but it does mean that religion is innately coercive. As well as innately incoherent. Because it’s manmade there is an infinite variety of it furthermore. And these sects proceed to quarrel among themselves, religious warfare having been one of the great retardants of civilization of the time we’ve been alive and very much to this day. There is finally a better tradition, it seems to me, that goes back as far as we know, to Epicurus and Democritus, and Lucretius, and the people who first worked out that the universe was made of atoms. And that there was no personal God who intervened or took any interest in our doings. And though some people find that a depressing conclusion it’s actually led to some rather wonderful work and some of the beautiful discoveries from Gallileo, who was a student of Democritus, through Spinoza, a near-perfect philosophical mind, through Mr Jefferson, the great humanist, polymath.
ASHBROOK: You’re looking at reason, enlightenment.
HITCHENS: Albert Einstein—yes—the beauties of science, the beauties of reason, the wonderful discoveries that were conceived through the Hubble Telescope, far more magnificent than any burning bush. And the consolations of philosophy, which are not negligible. We have a much finer tradition than those of the rival muttering priesthoods.
ASHBROOK: But poison? Poisons everything? Is it as insidious as that?
HITCHENS: I think any even small dose of the sleep of reason, even when reason nods off for a second, unreason and barbarism are waiting to rush in. It’s a full time job just keeping the mind alive in the face of these challenges from superstition and irrationality.
ASHBROOK: Are you an equal opportunity offender? Is it every faith? Every religion that you’re leveling this charge at?
HITCHENS: Well they’re all equal glimpses of the same untruth, and they all demand the surrender of reason and they all assert impossible things with no evidence. And they all hope for an everlasting dictatorship. I mean it’s, religion is among other things, I should have said this earlier, provides us with a great insight into the origins of totalitarianism. What would it be like, if it was true—I’m an anti-Theist, remember, as you kindly said in the introduction—you could be an atheist and wish, nonetheless, that the evidence would support the existence of such a system. I don’t, because it would be like demanding to live in a celestial North Korea. Where you are completely supervised and invigilated, without letup, every instant of your life, from conception until death, and that’s when the fun really begins. Because you’ll either go to a paradise which, according to every description I’ve ever read would be hellish, consisting of eternal praise and perfect servitude, unending, and benign, worst of all a benign dictatorship. Or you go for a lifetime of torture for an offense that you probably couldn’t have failed to commit because, as was well said about religion once, it postulates that we’re created diseased and then ordered to be well.